James Clerk Maxwell’s Accidental Invention of the Color Photograph: Humility in Research and Faith (Scholar’s Compass)


Through the creatures Thou hast made
Show the brightness of Thy glory,
Be eternal Truth displayed
In their substance transitory,
Till green Earth and Ocean hoary,
Massy rock and tender blade
Tell the same unending story —
“We are Truth in Form arrayed.”
Teach me so Thy works to read
That my faith,—new strength accruing,—
May from world to world proceed,
Wisdom’s fruitful search pursuing;
Till, thy truth my mind imbuing,
I proclaim the Eternal Creed,
Oft the glorious theme renewing
God our Lord is God indeed.
– from “A Student’s Evening Hymn” by James Clerk Maxwell, April 25 1853


The life and faith of James Clerk Maxwell has inspired generations of Christian academics. A successful researcher and administrator, Maxwell’s equations on electric and magnetic fields, according to Einstein, offered  a “change in the conception of reality… the most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton” (Einstein 1931). Maxwell directed the creation of the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University, putting in motion one of the most influential research labs in history. Throughout his career, Maxwell remained a dedicated Christian, teaching Sunday school and sending expositions of scripture in letters to friends. He even taught working men’s classes in London during the same period that he was developing his famous equations and inventing color photography (Hutchinson 1998).
However marvelous Maxwell’s achievements, my favorite Maxwell story is of a broken experiment that accidentally supported his hypothesis. It was 1861, and Maxwell was giving a lecture as a new member of the Royal Society. As he came on stage, three projectors were turned on; a trio of red, green, and blue filtered images superimposed to display the very first full-color photograph in history. Maxwell’s dramatic lecture also introduced experimental support for Young’s trichromatic color theory of vision. The nephew of a Scottish Baronet, Maxwell chose a tartan ribbon for this groundbreaking image:
Tartan_Ribbon copy
[image: the first ever tri-chromatic color photograph, taken by James Clerk Maxwell in 1861. Source: Wikimedia Commons]
The audience loved Maxwell’s full-color wonder, but the experiment should not have worked. The photographic emulsions of the time were not sensitive to green, yellow, or red areas of the spectrum, so Maxwell and his collaborator Sutton’s red and green filtered photographs must have been showing something else. The answer came a hundred years later in 1961, when Ralph Evans, a researcher at Kodak, reproduced Maxwell and Sutton’s experiment in close chemical detail. Under a red filter, the photographic plates picked up a sizable amount of ultraviolet light from a red cloth (Evans 1961). With problems in the experiment unnoticed, other researchers and inventors were convinced that Maxwell had proved the viability of color photography and were inspired to create properly working techniques.
Maxwell’s sort-of invention of color photography reminds me of a letter he received from the Bishop of Gloucester, asking if current scientific thinking on the nature of light supported certain claims in Genesis. Maxwell replies:
The rate of change of scientific hypothesis is naturally much more rapid than that of Biblical interpretations, so that if an interpretation is founded on such an hypothesis, it may help to keep the hypothesis above ground long after it ought to be buried and forgotten.
At the same time I think that each individual man should do all he can to impress his own mind with the extent, the order, and the unity of the universe, and should carry these ideas with him as he reads… passages [of the Bible] (Hutchinson 1998)
Maxwell argued that Christian researchers need both humility and wonder: the humility to recognize that our current explanations can be wrong, and the capacity to wonder at God through the world we explore.
We can see both of these qualities in a poem Maxwell wrote while a student at Cambridge. In this student prayer, the speaker prays for wisdom, efficiency, and good quality sleep while exploring the natural world alongside existing scholarly literature. The speaker begs that his mistakes be stifled gracefully, while his worthwhile ideas join a rising sacrifice of prayer through the ages. In the final stanza of this “Student’s Evening Hymn,” the themes of scholarship, observation, and theology converge in a life “renovated” by mercy and love, as the student is finally face to face with the Lord who watched over and supported his lifetime of research.


(final stanza of Maxwell’s A Student’s Evening Hymn)

Dear Lord of Light,
Give me love aright to trace
Thine to everything created,
Preaching to a ransomed race
By Thy mercy renovated,
Till with all thy fulness sated
I behold thee face to face
And with Ardour unabated
Sing the glories of thy grace.


Maxwell wrote about his scientific understanding of God in poetry. Do you ever bring together vastly different disciplines in how you think about or worship God? What in your work makes you want to worship? In what ways do you worship? Work in the lab? Poetry? Music? Field research?
Maxwell’s camera experiment is a good reminder that even great researchers need humility. What in your own work reminds you of human limits? Have you seen God transform even human mistakes to bring about something good?


Note: Originally titled The Accidental Camera and a Student’s Evening Hymn: James Clerk Maxwell on Faith and Science

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J. Nathan Matias

J. Nathan Matias (@natematias), who recently completed a PhD at the MIT Media Lab and Center for Civic Media, researches factors that contribute to flourishing participation online, developing tested ideas for safe, fair, creative, and effective societies. Starting in September 2017, Nathan will be a post-doctoral researcher at the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy, as well as the departments of psychology and sociology department Nathan has a background in technology startups and charities focused on creative learning, journalism, and civic life. He was a Davies-Jackson Scholar at the University of Cambridge from 2006-2008.

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  • kle.seaton@gmail.com'
    keseaton commented on January 8, 2015 Reply

    Wonderful thoughts – thanks! I wholeheartedly agree with the prayers for wisdom, efficiency, and good quality sleep!

  • natematias@gmail.com'
    J. Nathan Matias commented on January 9, 2015 Reply

    Thanks kseaton!

    Maxwell accumulated a few dozen works of verse in his lifetime, demonstrating that he had successfully mastered the art of end rhyme. A Scholar’s Evening Hymn is one of his best, although the Poetry Foundation does not include it in their list of Maxwell’s poems.

    A typical example can be found in his verse, “Lines written under the conviction that it is not wise to read Mathematics in November after one’s fire is out,” which I first learned about from Jeffrey Machowiak. You’ll see what I mean about rhyme:

    Why should wretched Man employ
    Years which Nature meant for joy,
    Striving vainly to destroy
    Freedom of thought and feeling?
    Still the injured powers remain
    Endless stores of hopeless pain,
    When at last the vanquished brain
    Languishes past all healing.

    Maxwell also loved to write scientific problems in verse, such as “A Problem in Dynamics”:

    An inextensible heavy chain
    Lies on a smooth horizontal plane,
    An impulsive force is applied at A,
    Required the initial motion of K.

    Let ds be the infinitesimal link,
    Of which for the present we’ve only to think;
    Let T be the tension, and T + dT
    The same for the end that is nearest to B.
    Let a be put, by a common convention,
    For the angle at M ‘twixt OX and the tension;
    Let Vt and Vn be ds’s velocities,
    Of which Vt along and Vn across it is;
    Then Vn/Vt the tangent will equal,
    Of the angle of starting worked out in the sequel.

    Maxwell is not alone in this wonderful precursor to Dance Your PhD. Scientific American has published a small anthology of poetry by victorian scientists, including Maxwell’s lovely “Valentine by a Telegraph Clerk (male) to a Telegraph Clerk (female).” I especially love this stanza:

    O tell me, when along the line
    From my full heart the message flows,
    What currents are induced in thine?
    One click from thee will end my woes.

    Maxwell’s colleagues at Cavendish also routinely authored scientific poetry. A History of the Cavendish Laboratory remembers Cavendish alumni parties:

    In recent years a notable feature of these gatherings has been the songs especially composed for the occasion by members of the Laboratory; they deal with topical matters, personal or scientific, and are set to some well-known air. One of the most successful of these songs, written by Mr. Robb, is printed below. For the benefit of non-mathematical readers, it should be explained that the chorus represents the way in which ‘Maxwell’s equations,’ the foundation of modern electromagnetic theory, would be pronounced, which the marvelous ingenuity of the author has succeeded in adapting to the needs of the rhythm.

    The Revolution of the Corpustle
    Air: “The interfering parrot.”

    A corpuscle once did oscillate so quickly to and fro,
    He always raised disturbances wherever he did go.
    He struggled hard for freedom against a powerful foe–
    An atom–who would not let him go.
    The aether trembled at his agitations
    In a manner so familiar that I only need to say,
    In accordance with Clerk Maxwell’s six equations
    It tickled people’s optics far away.
    You can feel the way it’s done,
    You may trace them as they run–

    dy by dy less dβ by dz is equal K.dX/dt
    . . . . . . . . . . .
    . . . . . . . . . . .
    While the curl of (X,Y, Z,) is the minus d/dt of the vector (a,b,c).

    Some professional agitators only holler till they’re hoarse,
    But this plucky little corpuscle pursued anoyher course,
    And finally resorted to electromotive force,
    Resorted to electromotive force.
    The medium quaked in dread anticipation,
    It feared that its equations might be somewhat too abstruse,
    And not admit of finit integration
    In case the little corpuscle got loose.
    For there was a lot of gas
    Through which he had to pass,
    And in case he was too rash,
    There was sure to be a smash,
    Resulting in a flash.

    dy by dy less dβ by dz is equal K.dX/dt
    . . . . . . . . . . .
    . . . . . . . . . . .
    While the curl of (X,Y, Z,) is the minus d/dt of the vector (a,b,c).

    The corpuscle radiated until he had conceived
    A plan by which his freedom might be easily achieved,
    I’ll not go into details for I might not be believed,
    Indeed I’m sure I should not be believed.
    However, there was one decisive action,
    The atom and the corpuscle each made a single charge,
    But the atom could not hold him in subjection
    Though something like a thousand times as large.
    The corpuscle won the day
    And in freedom went away
    And became a cathode ray.
    But his life was rather gay,
    And he went at such a rate,
    That he ran against a plate;
    When the aether saw his fate
    Its pulse did paliptate.

    and dy by dy less dβ by dz is equal K.dX/dt
    . . . . . . . . . . .
    . . . . . . . . . . .
    While the curl of (X,Y, Z,) is the minus d/dt of the vector (a,b,c).

  • natematias@gmail.com'
    J. Nathan Matias commented on February 16, 2015 Reply

    I received a lovely note today from Philip L. Marston, a physics professor at Washington State University, with further resources he’s written on Maxwell’s life and faith.

    P. L. Marston, “Maxwell and creation: acceptance, criticism, and his anonymous publication” American Journal of Physics, 75 731-740 (2007).

    James Clerk Maxwell: Perspectives on his Life and Work
    Editors: Andrew Whitaker, Mark McCartney & Raymond Flood
    Oxford University Press, January 2014
    Chapter 14: “Maxwell, Faith and Physics”
    pp. 258-291 & 339-353

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